What We Can Do to Help Prevent Gun Violence
It’s been a month and a day since the tragic gun massacre in Newtown. What has been less remarked upon is the slow-motion tragedy that unfolds on the streets of America each and every day. On average, 33 people are murdered with guns every day. In fact, more than 900 people have been killed with guns since the massacre in Newtown — 900 people.
This kind of gun violence has got to stop. Fortunately, there are numerous common sense steps our leaders can take right now if they summon the political courage to do so. Our Center for American Progress colleagues outlined 13 such steps in a paper out this week.
Here’s what Congress needs to do:
- Universal Background Checks: Right now a whopping 40 percent of guns sold in America are purchased through so-called “private sales,” which means they are completely exempt from background checks. It’s time that everyone who wants to buy a gun goes through a background check. This requirement is supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans (92 percent), gun owners (87 percent), and NRA members (74 percent).
- Make Sure the Background Check System Has Updated Data: A background check system is only as good as the information it contains. Many states, federal agencies, and others fail to submit information to the current system, which means that some people (felons, the dangerously mentally ill et al) who are not supposed to have guns can still pass a background check and obtain them.
- Prevent Convicted Stalkers from Getting Guns: If you’ve been convicted of domestic violence you can’t possess or purchase a gun, but if you’ve been convicted of stalking you still can. This needs to be fixed.
- Close the “Terror Gap”: If you are on the Terrorist Watchlist, chances are you probably cannot get on an airplane. But it’s still perfectly legal for you to go buy all the assault rifles and ammunition that you want. This is not simply a theoretical problem. From 2004-2010, 1,119 known or suspected terrorists purchased guns or explosives from federally licensed dealers. We have no way of knowing how many purchased weapons at gun shows, over the internet, or through other private sales.
- Reregulate Assault Weapons: Assault weapons are designed for one purpose and one purpose only: killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Congress should enact comprehensive legislation protecting the U.S. public from these deadly military-style weapons. A poll out yesterday poll found that such legislation is supported by 58 percent of Americans.
- Ban High-Capacity Magazines: Gun magazines with a capacity of more than 10 bullets should be banned. These dangerous components serve no legitimate civilian purpose and pose a danger to public safety. A poll out yesterday found that a ban on clips that hold over ten bullets is supported by 68 percent of Americans.
- End Restrictions on Gun Violence Research, Data Collection and Sharing: Congress has repeatedly put so-called “riders” on appropriations bills that restrict or ban federally-funded research on gun violence and prevent the government from collecting and/or sharing vital data. These restrictions could be lifted in March or September when Congress considers the next round of spending bills.
- Treat Gun Trafficking as a Serious Crime: Currently, traffickers are typically charged with selling without a license or knowingly transferring to a prohibited person—both of which carry penalties of only zero to five years. Congress must immediately consider legislation such as the Gun Trafficking Prevention Act introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that targets criminal gun-trafficking networks.
Here’s what the president can do through executive action that does not require Congressional approval:
- Penalize States That Refuse to Provide Data for the Background Check System: Some 18 states have submitted fewer than 100 records of dangerously mentally ill persons since the system began in 1999. The president should issue an executive order directly to the attorney general to withhold federal Justice Assistance Grant funding from any state that fails to submit a plan—and act on the plan—for facilitating the transfer of these records to the FBI.
- Ensure That Federal Agencies Provide Data for the Background Check System: Many federal agencies have also done a very poor job submitting records of people who should not be able to purchase guns. People have died as a result. The president should issue an executive order requiring every federal agency to submit a plan to the attorney general for submitting all eligible records into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and requiring the agencies to submit all the records within 12 months.
- Perform Background Checks on the Employees of Federally-licensed Gun Dealers: Currently, there’s nothing to stop someone who is legally prohibited from owning or purchasing guns from working in a gun store. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives should therefore use the authority it already has to conduct background checks of employees during the course of the more than 10,000 gun-dealer audit inspections it conducts each year.
- Require Reporting on Multiple Assault Rifle Purchases:Federal law requires federally licensed dealers to report to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives when an individual purchases multiple handguns within a five-day period. The bureau should expand its multiple-sale reporting requirement through its “demand letter” power to any multiple sale involving either:
- A dealer on the southwest border
- A dealer linked to more than five crime gun traces in the prior year
- A rifle that accepts a detachable magazine and is capable of firing a round larger than .22 caliber or any tactical shotgun with a pistol grip
- Move the ATF to the FBI: In recent years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has become a beleaguered agency that is unable to adequately fulfill its mission to oversee and enforce federal firearms laws. Senate Republicans have made it essentially impossible to confirm a head of this agency and the position has been vacant for seven years. For reasons such as lack of funding, limitations on its activities included in appropriations riders, and a leadership vacuum, the bureau is simply incapable of functioning properly as a standalone agency in its current state. Moving the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives from the Justice Department to the FBI will allow it to actually perform its vital duties.
BOTTOM LINE: Tomorrow, the Obama administration will announce its own specific proposals, both legislative and executive, to stem gun violence. It’s time for Congress to take up and pass proposals to stem gun violence as soon as possible. We can’t wait for another tragedy like Newtown and we as a society shouldn’t tolerate 33 gun murders every day.
The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.